In modern times we commonly refer to the reign of Queen Victoria as the Victorian Era in England. That era stretched from the year 1837 until 1901. In the grand scheme of human history, it wasn’t so long ago. In the grand scheme of culinary history, it might as well have happened a million years ago on another planet. While a number of dishes seemed perfectly normal even today, there are a handful of foods that the Victorians ate that would not find a welcome home on many menus these days.
10. Broxy Meat
Meat has long been a dinner staple for people all over the world. Victorians enjoyed all kinds of meat, fish, and poultry. From beef, to pork, to lamb and more, they definitely had their carnivorous side. But just like today, meat wasn’t always the cheapest item to buy. Sometimes if you wanted to have a tasty steak you had to go for a bit lower quality. That was where broxy meat came in.
If you couldn’t afford the good cuts of meat, and the average person very likely could not, then your local butcher may have had broxy meat at a discount. Usually sheep, though it didn’t have to be necessarily, broxy meat was the meat of any animal that had died of a disease. Essentially you were taking a gamble by even eating it. While not every disease can go from animal to human very easily, sheep could be infected with everything from tetanus, to ringworm, to various parasites and bacteria that would either kill you or make you wish you were dead.
9. Brown Windsor Soup
Brown Windsor soup sounds very proper and British even when you have no idea what’s in it. And this really is a traditional British favourite. You can still find it places today, though the recipe has definitely evolved to become more refined in the modern area. These days it’s made with root vegetables and even a little bit of Madeira wine. Back in the day it was somewhat less fancy.
The traditional recipe for Brown Windsor soup involved brown gravy, a little malt vinegar, some peppercorns and a bit of dried fruits like figs or dates. That’s it. You could also add the Madeira wine to this brew as well, so at least you’d get a buzz off of what is essentially gravy and fruit masquerading as soup.
8. Sheep Trotters
You can find hot dog carts all over big cities today, but head back to the Victorian era and you’d be finding trotter vendors everywhere. Sheep trotters were the street food of choice for the Victorian crowd, genuinely proving to be very popular despite there not being much to them.
As the name suggests, a sheep trotter is just a sheep’s foot. They were usually boiled and then you could just gnaw on the greasy, grisly appendage until you cleaned it down to the bone. There wasn’t very much meat on one of these, and there was also the potential that it wasn’t very clean either. But they were cheap, and easy to come by, and for that reason you could find hundreds of them in major cities during that time. While people in the Western hemisphere have more or less abandoned the dish, it’s still highly popular with some Eastern cultures, where it’s called paya.
Bloaters were smoked herring, and they were exceptionally popular. While smoked herring isn’t that unusual, and is still popular to this day, there was a difference between normal smoke herring, something like a kipper, and a bloater. The hint is in the name and how it’s prepared.
Bloaters were prepared whole and as is. Everything was still included in the fish, it wasn’t gutted or cleaned in any way. They got the name bloater because the fish would bloat as it smokes since its guts were still inside it and they just started expanding. That’s traditionally one of the main reasons we gut an animal before preparing it, because the gasses and fluids in their stomachs and organs can be both volatile and messy. The last thing most of us want when eating a fish is to see the contents of its digestive tract.
These fish were popular in Greater Yarmouth in Norfolk and traditionally were made from some of the later catch of the season. The early fish were often too small to prepare normally, so they could be pickled. The fatter fish later in the season that had bulked-up were smoked and sold as bloaters and it was generally considered safe to just eat them whole. They were so popular that people would often buy boxes of them and mail them as gifts to friends and relatives.
6. Pressed Duck
The name pressed duck doesn’t sound too awful at first, but when you get into the logistics of how this dish was prepared it’s quite morbid. The dish was popular enough that a chef actually invented a duck press to better make it. It became a signature dish at Le Tour d’argent in France we’re apparently over 1 million people dined on this creepy entree.
Before pressing the duck, it needed to be killed. The preferred method for butchery was strangulation so that you didn’t lose any of the blood. You let the carcass sit for a day so everything could settle, and then gut the bird leaving its liver and heart intact. The duck was to be tossed in an oven on the highest setting for about 20 minutes at that point so that the liver and heart will have broken down.
This is where pressed duck gets morbid and weird. The freshly cooked duck was taken tableside and along with the press in front of the diners. The legs and breast meat were carefully removed and then the carcass was put in the press and crushed. The blood and marrow would drain out through a spout and collect in a bowl. A little bit of liver and stock would be added to the duck juice, and you’d have yourself a sauce. The duck was then served with the sauce poured over it.
5. Slink Meat
If you have an affinity for leather, you may have heard of slink leather before. It’s leather made from the skin of unborn calves. It’s about as grisly as it sounds and it’s not the only use of slink out there.
Along with broxy meat, slink meat was another thing that you could find at a butcher shop if you were on a budget and couldn’t afford the decent cuts. If a cow was slaughtered for meat and it was found to be pregnant at the time, that unborn calf could be butchered and sold as meat. They would also sell the meat of miscarried cows or ones born prematurely. It’s not legal to sell that kind of meat anymore, but for the Victorians it was a cost effective alternative to regular cuts.
4. Jellied Eels
Jellied eels isn’t a trick name or a dish that’s hard to figure out in some way. It’s precisely what it claims to be. A traditional Cockney dish, it was made by chopping up eels and boiling them in water and vinegar with some spices. When you allow the dish to cool, it will solidify into a puck of fishy jelly.
They used to be popular as a street food, sold outside of pubs and eaten cold. As the variety of foods sold on the streets grew, jellied eel out of fashion. This was also because it became harder to find eels during the Victorian era. It said that at one point in time eel was so common in the Thames you could just toss a net in and pull out as many as you could handle. By the Victorian era the Thames was so polluted that the population had nearly vanished. Most of the eels that were jellied for Victorian diners was actually imported from places like Holland.
That said, it’s actually becoming popular again but the eels still need to be imported.
3. Mock Turtle Soup and Brain Balls
The idea of turtle soup may not be appealing to everyone if for no other reason than turtle is not something we generally eat. So would mock turtle soup be better or worse? That comes down to what you think of how the Victorians made mock turtle.
Never ones to be wasteful, the Victorian cooks used anything they could find to make food. In the case of mock turtle soup all you needed was a cow’s head. According to one published recipe you needed to scald the head until all the hair was gone. Then boil it until the horns turn soft. At that point you can cut it into slices the size of your finger.
The remainder of the recipe is fairly standard involving some stock, a lot of seasonings, a little Madeira wine, and then chopped brains. The brains were formed into balls, and you had mock turtle soup and brain balls all made from a cow’s head.
2. Foie Gras Ice Cream
A few years ago artisanal ice cream really took off and there were a lot of stories online about little shops around the country that would make truly bizarre flavors. It started simply enough with things like bacon ice cream, and then expanded to lavender and saffron and Sriracha hot sauce. You’ll even see cooking shows on the Food Network where a chef will try their hand at making a bizarre flavor of ice cream just to see if it works.
Thank the Victorians for being the first to come up with the idea that anything can be ice cream if you tried hard enough. Foie gras ice cream was a perplexing dish meant to be served in a mold shaped like a duck. You would take pre-made ice cream and mix in some cayenne pepper then line the duck mold with it. A layer of aspic jelly was added and then the whole mixture was allowed to freeze before the remainder was packed full of liver pate. It wasn’t clear if this was a dessert or an entree.
1. Arsenic Complexion Wafers
These days we understand the dangers of arsenic. In fact, the only time you tend to hear of it anymore is when it is used as a poison. For centuries, however, people have been using arsenic as a health and beauty aid. It was often used in skin care to improve the complexion. During the Victorian era they took this to a new level with arsenic wafers.
Advertised as a way of making your complexion smooth and clear, getting rid of moles and pimples, you could buy a box of arsenic wafers and just munch away on the poison whenever you felt like sprucing up your appearance. In addition to the benefits for your complexion they were advertised as being a cure for dyspepsia, habitual constipation, malaria, lackluster eyes, and even low spirits. If you’re curious, about 1/8 of a teaspoon of arsenic can kill a healthy adult.